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New innovation centre unlocks aquaculture opportunities

Agri-EPI Centre’s latest innovation hub at Loch Fyne on Scotland’s Argyll coast will help to drive sustainable solutions and improve efficiency for the UK aquaculture industry.

In partnership with independent aquaculture company, Otter Ferry Seafish (OFS) – and jointly funded by Innovate UK and Agri-EPI Centre – the Marine Aquaculture and Innovation Centre (MAIC) offers fully serviced research and development facilities to aquaculture producers and technology providers.

For further information on the MAIC facility or to enquire about research collaboration please contact Charlie Bowyer.

charlie.bowyer@agri-epicentre.com

“We’ve been involved in aquaculture innovation and new species development since 1968,” says Alastair Barge, Managing Director at OFS.

“For this initiative, we did market research to see what the sector needed to deliver sustainable solutions – R&D requires facilities, and most businesses can’t afford to run their own research stations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

The MAIC comprises a series of replicated small and large land-based tanks, located indoors under programmable lighting.

“The tanks have water capacities of two cubic metres and 20m3, respectively. In the 12 smaller tanks we can test four different regimes or diets, in triplicate, as commonly required for scientific evaluation,” Mr Barge explains. “In the six larger tanks, we can rear salmon and other farmed species to near-harvest weight.”

The tanks have a water flow-through system, incorporating pre-treatment using sand filtration and UV sterilisation. They are fitted with particle separators to measure uneaten food and fish waste.

Eduardo Jimenez, OFS’s Research and Development Manager, says:

“Land-based tanks offer greater environmental control than cages or other sea-based growing systems, improving the reliability of trials data. Interference from environmental factors is minimised because we can control and replicate conditions like lighting, water exchange rate, and oxygen levels.”

And the first trials are already under way.

“At the moment we are running a benchmarking feed trial for a commercial client comparing three diets, to assess which is best in terms of fish growth and feed conversion efficiency.”

As well as helping to improve diets and treatments for farmed fish and shellfish, the MAIC is well suited for evaluating different strains of commercial farmed species and for developing rearing methods for up-and-coming species like seaweeds. It also provides a platform for validating new aquaculture technologies for counting and observing livestock and monitoring water quality.

“This is a great new resource supporting UK aquaculture innovation and we’re going to keep improving the facilities, bringing in new species and trials,” says Dr Jimenez.

Improving aquaculture sustainability is at the core of the partnership and the MAIC.

“I think this centre can be a model for innovation, all with a background of sustainability,” adds Mr Barge.

Lisa Williams, Director of Business Development at Agri-EPI, is excited about the range of R&D projects which the centre can help with.

“It’s one of a kind in the UK. The centre will facilitate a range of trial work that will enable us to really look at efficiencies within the sector. It also opens the opportunity to carry out near-market trials, as well as linking into the long-term sustainability of the sector and wider ecosystem within that supply chain.”

“The partnership is a perfect combination to drive forward change and is a valuable resource to aquaculture businesses that want to initiate and progress R&D projects. If any business is interested in undertaking a project, then we encourage them to get in touch.”

 

Farming Innovation Pathways: LightWeeding

The LightWeeder is a world-first eye-safe, herbicide-free, carbon neutral, commercially viable weeding system delivered by lightweight autonomous field robots via UK agri-robotics company and Agri-EPI Centre member, Earth Rover.

The LightWeeding technology uses semiconductor LEDs to solve key technical, safety and commercialisation challenges faced by laser-based weeding systems.

The LightWeeder is part of CLAWS (Concentrated Light Autonomous Weeding and Scouting), Earth Rover’s agri robot that can kill weeds using a unique concentrated light method, and can also scout fields to obtain a complete data map of all crops after planting, showing the crops exact location, size, and any early signs of disease.

The main features of CLAWS are:

  • Weeding – chemical free and inherently safer than laser weeding. No till and no crop damage and can be used in any conditions without compacting the soil.
  • Scouting – In depth analysis of crops to allow better harvest predictions and increased yields

The complete system is ultra-lightweight (only 300kg) meaning it requires low amounts of energy to run, and is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than many of its competitors. It runs on batteries and (eventually) solar panels therefore uses no fossil fuels and helps farmers meet their net zero targets.

With increasing types of chemical-resistant weeds, a significant downturn in availability of hand labour plus a shift in society towards more organic options, now more than ever there is a need to change the way we farm. A recent report by Rothamsted Research shows weeds “pose an unprecedented threat to our food security” and highlights the need to diversify weed control as an urgent priority.

As explained by John Taylor, Farm Director at Pollybell Organic Farm,

“the key element here is that the LightWeeder not only makes chemical free farming more effective but it also solves the huge issue farmers are facing today in terms of the huge loss in labour force. Being able to weed fields autonomously means that food production doesn’t just grind to a halt.”

Lightweeding has several advantages over mechanical systems: it is energy-efficient and no-till, it does not damage drip irrigation or crops, it is not dependent on soil conditions, and it does not enable weeds to develop resistance. However, effective lightweeding must be low-cost, fast, and offer safe autonomous operation in modern farm environments – criteria that does not exist in-the market at this time.

Industry collaborators discuss developing autonomous ag solutions for safety and security

The development and utilisation of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence to grow and harvest food is gathering traction across the agriculture sector. Automation has become a critical element in sustainable food production, and robots and AI are now advanced enough to be used for non-standardised tasks such as weeding, crop sensing, and fruit picking. Many jobs are able to be improved, if not replaced, by robots.

Farming is complex and many stakeholders across the agriculture sector are involved in running the business, from farm managers and agronomists to supply chain representatives, insurers and policy makers. When developing any agricultural technology, innovators must think holistically about how the tech will be used on-farm, who will be involved in its use, and who it might impact more broadly.

Agri-EPI Centre’s 2021 Agricultural Technology Hackathon sought to identify solutions to enhance the safety and security of autonomous farm machines. Agri-EPI ran the initiative with Innovate UK-funded Hands Free Farm, a testbed for autonomous farm machinery and drones. The teams which took part came from a range of disciplines, including robotics, AI & machine learning, drones and computer vision. They came together to address the following challenges:
• Detecting people entering and exiting operational areas
• Communicating about the operation of unmanned vehicles
• Providing safety and other information and advice
• Managing human-machine interaction

This industry paper has been released in collaboration with stakeholders from across the agri-tech sector to offer recommendations around the future development of autonomous agricultural solutions. It raises a series of considerations around agriculture’s readiness for large scale adoption of autonomous vehicles and offers recommendations around maximising safety, improving connectivity, and combating future technology threats.

 

Read the full report here:

Hackathon whitepaper

 

Agri-EPI Centre and CIEL delighted to host Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UKRI today.

We took the opportunity to provide insight into work of the Agritech Centres in their role of translation of science into best practice and related agri-food sector benefits

Ottoline visited the Agri-EPI Northern Hub and CIEL-supported LARIF building and met Dr Mark Young of CIEL and Dave Ross of Agri-EPI, who provided examples of work the Agritech Centres are doing to benefit sustainability and commercial impact, leveraging our networks including key academic partners.

We are grateful to the University of Edinburgh for the overall co-ordination of the visit. Pictured are (left to right):

Prof. David Argyll, William Dick Chair of Veterinary Clinical Studies, University of Edinburgh
Prof. Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
Professor Moira Whyte, Head of College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh
Dave Ross, CEO, Agri-EPI Centre
Prof. Jonathan Seckl, Senior Vice Principal, University of Edinburgh
Helen Dundas, Data Driven Innovation Sector Lead in Agritech, University of Edinburgh
Prof. Bruce Whitelaw, Interim Director, The Roslin Institute
Dr. Thomas Farrugia, CEO, Beta Bugs Ltd
Dr. Mark Young, Head of Innovation, CIEL

NEVONEX announced as Agri-EPI conference sponsor

NEVONEX, powered by Bosch, has been announced as the sponsor of Agri-EPI Centre’s annual conference on 28 October.

The conference, titled ‘The Path to Sustainability’, will focus on the role of agri-tech in the journey towards more economically and environmentally sustainable farming.

The free, online event will bring together farmers and the wider agri-food industry, technology developers and start-ups, investors, and researchers in a series of panel discussions about the role of data and technology in improving productivity and profit while protecting and enhancing the environment. Farmers involved in Agri-EPI’s Satellite Farm Network will join the conversation.

Bosch supports farmers productivity and sustainability through its NEVONEX platform, an open, manufacturer-independent ecosystem providing seamless connectivity and automation of work processes and machines on-farm. You can find out more and register for the event here.

Green Asparagus Harvesting Robot Successfully Demonstrated in the UK by Muddy Machines

Muddy Machines, a UK agri-tech startup and Agri-EPI member announced that they have successfully developed a prototype robotic harvester for green asparagus, which they’ve named “Sprout”. Working closely with major asparagus grower Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire the company has spent the last year developing and testing their machine on-farm.

Farms require a high volume of seasonal workers for a variety of tasks, primarily for weeding and harvesting. Asparagus is one of the most labour intensive crops as harvesting occurs daily throughout the 12 week season. While other companies have largely ignored asparagus, because by itself it is a relatively small volume crop, Muddy Machines believe that starting with the crop most suited to robotic harvesting is best, before iterating to develop harvesters for more challenging crops.

Sprout uses the latest in deep learning technology to detect and delicately pick asparagus spears according to growers’ specifications. The robot is lightweight and fully electric, avoiding damaging soil compaction and enabling a green, sustainable and resilient future for UK horticulture.

Founded by Florian Richter and Christopher Chavasse in June 2021 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the urgent request from growers to find a solution to their labour supply challenges. Muddy Machines is now seeking additional funding to bring an initial batch of robots to market in 2022.

Muddy Machines are an Agri-EPI member and are backed by Britbots, Robotic Ventures, Entrepreneur First, and a number of fantastic business angels having won several Innovate UK grants and accelerator programs.

Listen to our Seedling Sessions podcast with Florian of Muddy Machines here – episode #4.

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